Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Mountain Roads
distributed 9/26/03 - ©2003

Several years ago, I made the mistake of going on a Labor Day outing from our home in Denver to the nearby mountains.

It was a beautiful late summer day, and our group had a delightful time relaxing near a high-country lake. The problem came on the drive home, when we met up with some of the tens of thousands of other people who had escaped from the city for the holiday weekend.

Almost all of that traffic is channeled though Interstate 70 in the 40 miles immediately west of Denver. On that Labor Day, it took us about an hour and a half to creep through the gridlock on that short stretch of highway.

It was not a pleasant way to end an otherwise relaxing trip.

That Labor Day traffic jam was not an isolated event. It is repeated often through the summer, and on most weekends at the height of the ski season.

This week, Colorado officials convened a transportation planning forum to examine options for this persistent problem. A Denver Post story on that meeting started with the statement, "Colorado's tourism industry is choking on congestion in the Interstate 70 corridor from Denver to Glenwood Springs."

Planners who have been working on the problem have produced at least 20 alternatives for moving people and vehicles through the corridor. The proposals cover an impressive range, from increased mass transit, to highway widening, reversible lanes to handle peak flows, and renewed consideration for a super-high-tech monorail system.

A county commissioner from the western end of the region -- farthest from the Denver crowds -- looked ahead to a time when meeting the growing transportation needs would require both a monorail and widening the Interstate to 6 lanes.

Closer to Denver, the Interstate runs beside Clear Creek in a narrow and winding valley. A county commissioner from that end of the corridor said, "Residents don't want to see, hear or smell more I-70 traffic."

Here in Colorado, it is a hot issue. Mountain residents and visitors have strong feelings. Powerful political and economic leaders are pushing their interests and agendas.

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What strikes me about this debate is the question that is not being asked. Nobody is looking for ways to keep people out of the mountains.

The universal assumption seems to be that more and more people will travel from Denver into the high country. That increase in travel is considered inevitable. Indeed, most commentators consider that increase to be a good thing.

But more growth in Colorado's mountains will exacerbate problems that already exist. There is already a severe shortage of affordable housing for the service workers who keep the hotels, restaurants and stores operating. The expanded ski runs, golf courses and condominium complexes that will both attract and serve the anticipated multitudes of tourists will consume land and water that are in short supply now. Enormous trophy homes built on 35 acre "ranchettes" -- often second homes, not the primary residence -- gobble building materials and utilities, fragment the forest habitat, and expand the high-risk "red zone" of forest fire danger on the urban interface.

And of course, the cars and busses that move people to the mountains burn oil that is already in short supply. The carbon dioxide that spews from those tailpipes is a significant cause of global climate change.

The entire trend contradicts the eco-justice principle of sustainability. Sustainability demands a use of resources that can be maintained for the long haul, without destroying either the resource base or the environment.

Environmentally, making it easier to drive to the mountains is stupid.

But the fight over highway options in Colorado is not being addressed as an environmental issue. It seen as an economic issue, grounded in an ideology of growth. The path to jobs and wealth is seen in more building, more people, and more travel. The call to expand Colorado's highways shows how the drive for economic growth is often divorced from ecological health. It is a separation that leads to disaster.

"Eco-justice" insists that we seek a fair and sustainable direction for both "eco" realms -- economics and ecology. Indeed, it insists that those are not separate realms at all. Our financial exchanges and our environmental relationships are both expressions of our life within God's creation.

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The highway situation west of Denver provides a graphic example of a problem found all around the world. The compulsive push for traditional forms of economic growth often leads us away from the long-term health of our communities and our environment.

Economic and environmental sustainability have to be held together. Doing so demands that we have the courage and creativity to ask new questions and challenge existing trends.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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